When I was pregnant with C, my clients and colleagues all recommended to me the same book with the sort of enthusiasm you come to expect from an impending birth.
At the same time, someone recommended the exact same book to my own mama, who was about to become a Grandmommy for the first time.
That book was Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman.
My mama read it on the plane on her way over to France to meet her new grandbaby. I read it in the weeks after her trip when C was born. It has become so popular that I look at it as the Definitive Guide to French Parenting for Americans.
It’s the perfect way to open the category of French parenting here on Mamas Café Society, because, while I have much to say on the subject, my thoughts and ideas are unfolding as my daughter grows.
But if you want a crash course from someone who paved the way before me, Bringing Up Bébé is a must-read.
Do you have your café in hand, mama? Then, allons-y!
Bringing Up Bébé is the definitive guide to French parenting for Americans
First, a little about the book, Bringing Up Bébé, from the blurb on the back cover:
When American journalist Pamela Druckerman had a baby in Paris, she didn’t aspire to become a “French parent.” Then she noticed that French children sleep through the night at two or three months old. They eat braised leeks. Their parents sip coffee while the kids play by themselves. And French kids are still boisterous, curious, and creative. Why?
With a notebook stashed in her diaper bag, Druckerman realized that the French don’t just have a different parenting philosophy—they have a very different view of what a child actually is. In this deeply wise, charmingly told memoir, Druckerman recounts how she discovered that children—including her own—are capable of feats of understanding and autonomy she’d never imagined.
In my edition of the book, there is the Bébé Day By Day section at the end. Here Druckerman summarizes her main ideas without her backstory for when you want to easily reference her advice weeks, months, or years after you have read the book.
So what are some of her observations around French parenting?
Main ideas in Bringing Up Bébé about French parenting
Bringing Up Bébé is chock full of the wisdom of French parenting. Druckerman is an American married to an Englishman raising their three children in the Paris area, so she has some unique perspective on how the French approach parenting.
Side note, I’m an American married to a Frenchie raising our child on the coast of Normandy. My experience is a little different than hers because there’s Paris, and then there’s, you know, the rest of France. The point is, her experience is her own, and I still found it extremely helpful. I hope you will too. That’s what this post is for!
Here are some of her main ideas and how you can apply them wherever you are in the world:
Pregnant Frenchwomen are not pregnant French women—they’re Frenchwomen who happen to be pregnant. Follow me?
Pregnancy doesn’t reach quite the same frenzy in France as in America. It’s not empirical, it’s mystical. The French aren’t obsessed with fertility planning in an otherwise healthy woman. They’re not measuring each gram of food. It all stays in balance as pregnancy just sort of happens.
And when bébé is born, his mama isn’t now “just” a mama—she’s still a woman, who also now happens to be a mama.
French mamas approach sleeping with the same zen they applied to pregnancy and childbirth. There is no need for obsession, no need to force. Bébés learn to sleep with some guidance from their French parents, but by and large they manage it naturally, on their own.
French parents teach patience from birth by waiting for longer and longer intervals of time from when their babies start crying in their sleep. French parents realize the value in sleep—guiding, not forcing, their babies to learn to sleep benefits everyone.
Just as French parents move their babies into a room of their own relatively early, they also are only too eager for their child to start at the nanny or at daycare.
Part of this is because French mamas still value themselves as workers. A bigger part is that French parents believe in faire la séparation (cutting the cord) as a benefit to their children.
The French let their kids grow and learn by simply getting out of the house, seeing other people, and experiencing different things. No one needs to be a helicopter parent. It’s about letting your kids go out and do their thing while socializing with people outside of the household.
On parents as a couple
Kids are hard on a relationship. French parents know this, and they act accordingly.
Generally speaking, French parents put babies in their own rooms very early; this allows the parents to maintain their own space—for their own sanity, and as a sanctuary for their couple. (It was not the case for us, but that was a personal choice, and I do feel that Druckerman is right to generalize this about the French.)
As time goes on, French kids are still put to bed relatively early in order to preserve the evening for Adult Time. I practice this in my family and honestly, it’s been a gift for my marriage.
French parents put on a unified front when it comes to discipline. The basic technique is giving kids a cadre (frame) of rules in which to operate. They can do whatever they want within that frame. But, if they step outside of it, French parents will very firmly say non. Or, they give a huge stink eye (psst, which is hilarious—but it’s hard for me not to laugh!).
French cuisine is legendary. But it’s not just for a certain demographic—it’s for everyone, including kids!
I have observed that American parents are more eager to start with grains such as wheat and rice. French children are fed a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as soon as they are able to start solids.
There are no “kid foods” and “adult foods.” Their menu is generally derived from whatever the parents have on their plates, and adapted according to texture.
Home-cooked meals are a must, and kids are involved in the cooking process from very young.
French kids know who’s running the show: their parents! But the balance of power is achieved by giving kids opportunities—and the responsibility—to behave appropriately.
French parents actually teach frustration and patience because they believe their kids can cope with big emotions. How do they do this? Well, kids naturally get frustrated. French parents don’t distract their kids with something shiny over there; they let the frustration play out, and eventually, it passes.
Patience, too, is taught on a daily basis. French parents simply do not cater to their kids’ every whim as soon as they ask for something. French parents love saying attends (wait). In fact, they say it so often that my almost 2-year-old daughter has already mastered it!
Protecting your kids from uncomfortable feelings isn’t actually going to help them deal with life in the long run. French parents know this and they use it to their advantage.
The keys to French parenting
French mamas and papas approach parenting with zen. They’re not “helicopter parents.” They let their kids be kids (within reason). It’s not about doing everything possible so their kids reach some arbitrary milestone, faster and earlier. Rather, it’s about letting their kids’ lives unfold naturally, about enjoying the ride.
It’s important to note that Druckerman isn’t a psychologist—she’s a journalist. Yes, she quotes experts and analyzes data to back up her claims. If you’re looking for a book to solve a particular parenting issue, Bringing Up Bébé is probably not for you.
Druckerman is certainly more experienced than me when it comes to raising kids in the land of baguettes. I’m just starting on my journey. While I have been living amongst the French for 10 years, I haven’t really observed them as a parent until now.
My take on French parenting so far actually comes from some wise words from an Anglo-Belgian friend of mine living near me:
Being a mama is your priority, but it’s not your only priority.
Okay, my friend isn’t French, but she’s been living here as long as me. She simply meant to keep everything in balance. French women are better at looking at their lives holistically. They don’t just throw away their career, marriage, friends, and hobbies because they’ve had a baby.
I see many of my own French mama friends carrying out their lives with a sort of whimsy. It’s as though they hardly notice a seismic change characteristic of mamahood.
I still wonder how they actually do it. How are they not falling to pieces like me every single day?!
“I don’t want to ‘forget myself’” said a French mama friend of mine. It’s another way of saying that mamahood is my priority, but it’s not my only priority.
Druckerman agrees: “If family life is centered entirely on children, it’s not good for anyone, not even for the kids” (270).
The French love rules, but these are more like guidelines.
You don’t have to live in France to apply the principles of French parenting. Pamela Druckerman unveils all the secrets she’s learned about French parenting on the ground. Picking up Bringing Up Bébé is the next best alternative to actually moving to France yourself to raise your kids.
But don’t take any of this too seriously! Druckerman herself says to “please take this book as inspiration, not doctrine” (272). Not all French parents are alike. No one, no matter what country you live in, has to conform to any cultural set of parenting norms. The best part of learning more about parenting in another culture is that you can pick and choose the bits you like without sacrificing your own values.
Now that you know a little more about some common French parenting methods, what do you think about them? If you decide to pick up the book, I’d love to know your comments below! Happy reading!